Waking Up

When I did autopsies as a forensic pathologist in the mid-70s my “volume” was turned down. It seemed the nature of the business. As a result, the gore and mayhem on and off the streets of Baltimore had less impact on me.

The stench of recently deceased alcoholics permeated the Baltimore autopsy room frequently. It was a place most people were not eager to enter.

The horrific was not uncommon in California’s Ventura County in 1978 either. At least on the surface, I was somewhat desensitized.

However after several years in forensics, I went on to a clinical laboratory in 1979. A clinical laboratory is a lab that measures various substances in human, blood, urine, etc. for the benefit of patient care.

The lab was considering expanding its efforts into forensic pathology.  I was asked to give the marketing group the same forensic pathology lecture I had given for several years. It was replete with projected slides. Many of the slides were ghastly enough to upset a glass eating mob of skinheads on Harley Davidsons.

I gave the presentation. My stomach began to churn. My record of professional, continuous calm innards for several years was coming to a close. I was composed but with difficulty.  

My “volume,” or sensitivity had been re-expanded in the clinical lab experience. I was practicing medicine in a far less gruesome environment.

Nausea aside, it was good to be among the living. The patients actually were breathing and had a pulse.

Rather than working in a morgue a few blocks from Edgar Allan Poe’s grave-site, I was in Steinbeck’s California with outgoing fellow employees and patients who made eye contact.


Even with my volume down in the spring of 1977 in Baltimore, some things just got through. There was a lot I could easily soak up with Kristine and her folks. I was the recipient of a lot of good signals.

On our first date, unlike anyone I had ever dated, Kris could actually play tennis. It wasn’t something to cater to a man. It was a sport she had enjoyed most of her life. Even in my condition that skill and passion for the game got through my thick skull.

Peter Berger a sociologist of knowledge looked at the value of play in his book, Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural. He wrote as follows:

“Joyful play appears to suspend, or bracket, the reality of our “living towards death” (as Heidegger aptly described our “serious” condition). It is this curious quality, which belongs to all joyful play, that explains the liberation and peace such play provides. In early childhood, of course, the suspension is unconscious, since there is as yet no consciousness of death. In later life play brings about a beatific reiteration of childhood. When adults play with genuine joy, they momentarily regain the deathlessness of childhood.”

What a gift from God, particularly in my morbid profession.

On our second date we traveled from Baltimore to Washington DC for a tennis tournament. On the trip home we surprised her parents in suburban Washington. Her dad, Fred, was reminiscent of my favorite grandparent, Isadore. Kris has noted since their similar physical appearance.

Like grandpa he was warm and easy to get to know. I quickly felt like we were old friends. We drove off to pick up the Chinese dinner he had ordered, a trip filled with smiles and laughter.

I had landed on more joyous ground. It all got through my layer of insensitivity. It was like OVERCOMING The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner per the title of Alan Sillitoe’s short story and the movie it generated.

Her mom was lovely with a keen eye for the beautiful. The home’s interior was filled with beautiful antiques and modern furniture arranged thoughtfully.  I discovered on daylight visits to their home that the back of their house, notable as one entered, was glass with a view of the picturesque trees and gardens in the backyard.

I would have to have been dead and buried, like all of my “patients,” to have missed the effect of what I had walked into out of the blue.  According to Max Lerner, “The turning point in the process of growing up is when you discover the core of strength within you that survives all hurt.” Despite  retreating from the living in my work, I recognized the goodness and joy in Kris and her family. Thank God I got the message.

A Diverse Family Trip in the Northeast

It was likely the summer of 2006. The trip for our 16 year old son Chad and me began with a flight to New York City. At that time my daughter Courtney and son- in-law Alex lived on the Princeton seminary campus, a seminary Alex attended. Kris, my spouse, had already flown east and was staying in Princeton.

The entire plan was initially to visit my brother’s family and have Kris, Courtney and Alex join us at Princeton. Following that we would proceed to West Point. Finally we would arrive in Troy, N.Y. to bury the ashes of Kris’ mom and dad, Fred and Betty. Kris’ younger brother joined us for the memorial service at the cemetery.

On arrival in the Big Apple, Chad and I rented a car and went to visit my younger brother John, his wife Judy and their daughter Anne in Plandome, N.Y. We enjoyed dinner in the backyard. Anne showed Chad her place in Greenwich Village where she lived while attending NYU.

I had never seen my only brother’s home nor walked along this beautiful waterfront portion of New York. Plandome is a township on northern Long Island. It was incorporated in 1911, the year my father-in-law was born. A former resident was Bobby Riggs of tennis fame who later lived and died in our community in San Diego. Having spent the evening there we drove to Princeton the next morning.

What a morning! I discovered why many natives rarely drive in Manhattan. The recklessness of delivery people on bikes puts anyone on four wheels at risk to decimate/filet them. At intersections the bicyclists had no regard for the concept called “right of way.”

We pulled through the intersections on green lights frequently cut off by bikes. My coronaries must have been in excellent working order to have survived the jolting journey through the heart of Manhattan. No one was hit but the margins were too close for my rumbling innards. Chad was not thrilled either.

We met Kris at a spot where I really could not see the campus buildings at Princeton. She turned a corner with me and I was stunned by the sudden, magnificent, Gothic architecture. These buildings were several hundred years-old and exuded character. The buildings’ stones were buried for several years before they were used adding beauty, early, to this magnificent campus.

Only about ninety miles northward was West Point and the Thayer Hotel just outside the academy’s gates. It was an elegant brick edifice erected in 1926, in part, for those visiting West Point. One of the ironies of the hotel is that the brave, elegant, straight-backed commander, Douglas MacArthur, was a cadet whose mother lived in the hotel during his tenure at the U.S. Military Academy.

My then 16 year old son’s reaction was this old place doesn’t have a pool. On the other hand Chad like all of us basked in the moonlit dining on the restaurant’s porch which bordered the Hudson River. The moonlight twinkled on the gently rolling river. It was a far cry and a world apart from the Manhattan traffic a mere fifty miles south.

Besides seeing most of the beautiful campus grounds that day we were in store for a wonderful site. We got to a famous point that in the 18th century was highly defendable. It was the very high ground overlooking the Hudson by several hundred feet. I will never forget that placid, picturesque site.

The following day we drove towards Troy surrounded by the beauty of the Hudson River Valley. Its lovely terrain had been immortalized by the artists of the mid-19th Century Hudson River School. The river snaked slightly through charming green countryside. Several of the towns had Dutch names usually ending in kill, i.e. Peekskill, Catskill, and Fishkill. “Kille” means riverbed in Middle Dutch.

We arrived in the twin cities that bordered the Hudson River, Albany and Troy. Much of Troy looked like a trip back into my father in- law’s childhood. The buildings of the early 20th century were well preserved.

Fred and Betty had met riding the same bus in Washington DC during WWII.  They were both in the military though alarmingly, she outranked him.

Following a small civil ceremony they lived their lives together for about a half century. He drew hilarious cartoons as a hobby. She served exquisite meals in her beautifully decorated home for us all. They were a couple so bonded to one another that it wasn’t long after Betty’s death that Fred followed.

The cemetery plots Fred had purchased were in Oakwood Cemetery, a huge place. As though an omen, the last time Fred and Kris were together he told her about the plots. From the Oakwood Cemetery’s website it reads:

“Founded in 1848, Oakwood is one of America’s largest rural cemeteries, commanding a spectacular panoramic view of the Hudson Valley. Oakwood is the final resting place of many of the area’s most prominent citizens, including “Uncle Sam” Wilson, progenitor of the famous Uncle Sam icon.”

 And so there in that beautiful old cemetery we eulogized the two lovely people without whom there would have been no Kris, Courtney or Chad. It had been an emotional trip for us. This parting of the ways was bittersweet. Betty and Fred live on in our affections as we bring to mind their generosity, sense of humor and love.

H. Robert Rubin, best-selling, Amazon memoirist and author of LookBackwardAngel, How Did I Get Through This? and Please Save the Third Dance for Me, all available on Amazon.Third Dance for Me, available on Amazon.